- Historic Sites
“You Press The Button, We Do The Rest”
George Eastman's inexpensive, popular camera helped create the modern age
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
Without a wife and children or an active, participating role in his company’s work, Eastman needed other outlets for his energies, and he found them. He became a major benefactor of the city of Rochester, which he had given wealth and status beyond the dreams of even the most ambitious promoters. (“Wherever the photographic art is practiced,” a local newspaper beamed in 1898, “there Rochester is known. … As the purchaser turns to Pittsburgh for steel … and to Chicago for grain, so does he turn to Rochester for photographic goods.”) Eastman financed an orchestra, a theatre, a Municipal Bureau of Research, and a Chamber of Commerce building for his fellow townsmen and poured money into the modest University of Rochester, enabling it to add a distinguished medical school and a music conservatory and to upgrade itself dramatically in endowment. He also exerted a strong influence on Rochester’s political life. Overtly, he put his support in the 1920’s behind a conversion of the city’s government to a city-manager format (a businessmen’s and reformers’ dream of efficient, nonpartisan rule). What other pressures he and Kodak exerted are still shadowed. It is enough to say, however, that one associate recalled, after Eastman’s death, that he was the object of “near-hatred” to some Rochesterians who resented “the enormous control he exerted over his fellow citizens.” The sound of civic applause may have drowned out the hisses, but they were there.
Rochester, however, was not the limit of his philanthropic outreach. He gave away nearly seventy-five million dollars before his death. A large share of that sum went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (A modest as well as a generous giver, Eastman donated to M.I.T. for many years under the name “Mr. Smith.”) There were also generous benefactions to two Negro colleges, Hampton and Tuskegee, and to dental clinics in various cities of the world- a pet project, for some per- sonal reason. Merely keeping track of the projects financed by his gifts could have become a totally absorbing occupation in itself. But Eastman also found time to play, after his fashion, as befitted the man who had taught the country to picture itself at play. He was an inveterate hunter, roaming the world at the head of large parties of friends and servants and bringing back from Africa and other exotic places packing cases laden with skins and heads for the walls of his home. Naturally, there were always copious photographic records of such safaris, made by the best and latest equipment.
He owned houses and lands; he owned a great corporation; in a sense, he was an important partowner of the city of his rearing. Yet the report of everyone close to him was that he remained somewhat shy, content to ascribe his condition mostly to destiny, even slightly oppressed by a sense that he had a continuing responsibility to prove his usefulness to the world. He seemed to struggle against taking success or happiness for granted.
Sometime during 1931, when he was seventy-seven, Eastman began to suffer from a spinal ailment that threatened to make him a cripple. On March 14, 1932, he retired to an upstairs bedroom and, tidy to the end, neatly laid a folded towel over his chest and put a bullet through his heart. Beside him on a table was a note: “To my Friends: My work is done. Why wait?”
It was a lean, undemonstrative final farewell, in keeping with the style he had set himself. Perhaps the problem of his later life was that, in a sense, his work was already done by 1901, when the burdened but briskly moving days and nights of experiment and effort culminated in the great company that had created the camera that anyone—anyone at all—could buy, use, and enjoy. Perhaps the rest was only a comfortable twilight.